This series of articles aim to cover the times when pre-determined professional wrestling matches became all too real. This will not cover stiff shots that were delivered in the course of battle or backstage brawls, but true moments when the punches were no longer pulled and shit got real!
“Mr.Wrestling” Tim Woods vs. Arnold Spurling
This incident wasn’t caught on tape and so only second hand accounts exist of it, so in the interest of clarity, I’m going to go with long time veteran Dick Steinborn’s version of events.
Tim Woods broke into the pro game later than most as he was 29 years old. He had strong credentials however as he was a two-time Big Ten wrestling champion in the late 5o’s. He was given a solid push in the pro game and was a top name in many southern promotions. To take advantage of his shooting ability, some promoters had Woods work against fans to show off his very real skills. This came back to haunt him in 1968 when a fan named Arnold Spurling was selected to face him.
Spurling was part of a group of fans who loudly called out to the wrestlers that their sport was fake. Spurling was a 250 plus pound corn-fed tough guy and he was given the chance to test out Mr. Wrestling and see if he could handle this “fake” stuff. Spurling seemed to perhaps be part of the “work” though as he apparently received promo time a few days before the conflict and dramatically ripped off Wood’s trademark white mask following a sucker punch when the bout was going to start.
Woods was given back his mask and then he went after Spurling, quickly scoring a takedown and riding him to wear him out. Spurling managed to make the ropes several times, but was taken down again and again. During the struggle to get to the ropes a third time, Woods left his hand exposed near Spurling’s mouth, which allowed Spurling to bite down onto it and rip off the tip of his finger. Spurling stood up and spit the finger tip onto the mat. Woods was pissed now and he charged Spurling, sending him outside of the ring where he proceeded to kick and stomp away at Spurling until Spurling’s friends made a move toward the ring, which led to the locker room coming to Woods’ aid.
The men exchanged words at the hospital after the fact, but the content of that conversation is lost to history.
Other sources claim Spurling was a trained worker named Horace Strickland, and he was being brought in by working a fan from the crowd angle. Woods decided to rib Strickland by covering his mouth up while they were “working” and finally Strickland got pissed off enough that he bit into the finger of Woods.
The aftermath of what became of Spurling is also a matter of conflict as some sources say he became a preacher, and others say he was shot by the police and died several years after his run in with Mr. Wrestling.
Woods went on to work in the ring for another fifteen years, even coming back after surviving the infamous plane wreck that crippled Johnny Valentine and broke Ric Flair’s back.
Karl Gotch vs. Eric Hanson
1968 saw another incident where a fan and a shooter collided with unexpected results. I covered Karl Gotch’s very impressive credentials last time, and it was the legend of his shooting abilities that led to Vancouver promoters deciding to have Gotch test any fans who wanted to try and show their grit. Eric Hanson was the fan chosen one random night. He stood over six feet tall and weighed in excess of 300 pounds.
Gotch was not well liked by his peers and some took it upon themselves to coach up Hanson before the bout. The rules were that the fan would have to last 5 minutes to receive a cash reward. Using that information, Hanson was told to just grab the ropes and hang on for dear life. Once the contest began, he did just that. Gotch, try as he might, just couldn’t take the massive man down to finish him off. Gotch had been beaten!
Hanson took the notoriety from this upset win and used it to break into the business.
Hanson would die a decade later in a freak accident when he was struck by a car. His unlikely career saw him travel the world, face legends and even contend for WWWF and NWA world titles. He even received bookings in Japan, a place where his limited skill set would usually not be desired, thanks to the win over the revered Gotch. All thanks to one shoot challenge that didn’t go as planned.
Antonio Inoki vs. Muhammad Ali
June 26, 1976 Gene Lebell refs
Antonio Inoki was born Kanji Inoki in 1943. He learned karate as a teenager and excelled at basketball and various track and field sports. He met Rikidozan, whose fame I covered last time, when Inoki was 17 and soon joined Shohei “Giant” Baba as a disciple to Japan’s biggest wrestling star.
Inoki took on the first name “Antonio” as a homage to wrestling star Antonio Rocca.
After the death of Rikidozan, Baba and Inoki became professional rivals, with Inoki being pushed less than Baba in the Japanese Wrestling Association. Inoki responded by finding another wrestling group to become the star of. After it folded rather quickly, Inoki had to return to Baba’s side and they spent several years as partners. Inoki then attempted to take over the promotion in 1971 and ended up fired over it. Inoki formed “New Japan Pro Wrestling” and made himself the headline act. His first main event was against Karl Gotch.
The next several decades saw a full on promotional war between Inoki and Baba’s “All Japan Pro Wrestling”.
In April of 1975 Muhammad Ali asked the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association president Ichiro Hatta “Isn’t there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins”. The comments made headlines in Japan, and Antonio Inoki saw this as the kind of mega match that would help add to his own legend and prove his promotion New Japan was the superior promotion in Japan. A deal for a match between Inoki and Ali was made in March of 1976 and both men went on promotional campaigns to plug the June encounter.
Ali was to receive six million dollars for his efforts and Inoki needed the American public to come out to closed circuit locations across Ali’s homeland in order to recoup his losses. Ali worked against some American jobbers to help add to the media buzz. Verne Gagne, Dick The Bruiser, Freddie Blassie, Vince McMahon and others all made sure to get their faces on camera for the worldwide audience:
Howard Cosell’s commentary for the event is amusingly business exposing:
When the promotional tour was done and fight night arrived, there was just one issue – Ali refused to go along with the planned finish of Inoki going over. Inoki claims he warned Ali there would be no rehearsal and the fight would be very real. Once this was established, a series of rules were added that ensured Inoki would not be able to throw, grapple or tackle Ali and would have to have one knee on the mat if he wished to throw any kicks. The public was not made aware of this beforehand.
The fight itself was a disaster, with the rules now handcuffing Inoki, he spent much of the 15 rounds on his back kicking away at Ali’s legs. Ali bled from his leg but only manged to connect with six punches of his own the entire match. Inoki tripped Ali up at one point and delivered an elbow to his face, this caused 3 points to be deducted from him. This would prove to be the deciding factor as the bout ended up a draw. The fans in attendance filled the ring with trash and demanded refunds.
Inoki ended up with an injured leg from delivering so many kicks. Ali suffered an infection on his leg and blood clots. It’s said that the injuries hampered Ali for the rest of his boxing career. Inoki eventually won public sentiment when the restrictive rules he overcame were revealed. He was far from done with his shoot fighting however.
Antonio Inoki vs. Akram Pahalwan
Only six months after the debacle with Ali, Antonio Inoki traveled to Pakistan to challenge Akram Pahalwan. Akham was the nephew of the legendary Great Gama.
Gama was a superstar in India during the formative years of wrestling. The official line is Gama was an undefeated shoot fighter, conquering men even as he entered his fifties. He also made absurd demands to American promoters to keep himself priced out of any place where he might be exposed or ask to lose. By the time his nephews became wrestlers, it was known to be a sham business. Akram was one of those nephews who tried to keep the family pride alive by “competing” in the sport.
I’m not sure exactly why the match with Akram and Inoki ended in the manner it did, but the bout in December of 1976 saw Inoki dislocate Akram’s shoulder early in the match. Later on, Akram’s refusal to quit despite pain and injuries led to Inoki bending his arm in such a fashion that a doctor called off the match. Inoki jumped to his feet and screamed “I broke it!”. Akram was humbled in his home country, in front of trove of his own people, in what would prove to be his final match. How much of the reported injuries are legit, I’m truly not sure, but this bout is cited time and time again as a “shoot”, and I felt I had to add it.
Gama’s family would get their revenge two and a half years later at Ghaddafi Stadium when 19 year old Jhara Pahalwan took on Inoki in a bout designed to restore his families dignity. “His boyhood was devoted to revenge,” Jhara’s brother, Abid Pahalwan, told the Japanese news organizations.
Jhara took Inoki to a five round draw, however Inoki symbolically raised Jhara’s hand into the air and indicated Gama’s family had trumped him this time. The match was a work, and you can bet Inoki was paid handsomely to “lose”.
Antonio Inoki vs. Great Antonio
Just under a year after his shoot with Akram, Inoki found himself staring across the ring from Antonio Barichievich. The Croatian-Canadian had gained some fame world wide as strongman “The Great Antonio”. He packed 450 pounds onto his 6’4 frame and used his bulk to pull locomotives, airplanes, buses and other large objects. He once hijacked a bus full of passengers just for the publicity!
By the time this match took place The Great Antonio was already over 50 years of age and had been out of wrestling for 15 years. Inoki was cut off from bringing in NWA connected guys thanks to the NWA siding with Baba in the promotional war so he had to turn to guys like The Great Antonio in order to create headline matches for himself. Barichievich had been put over lower card New Japan talents in three on one matches heading into this and had even beaten Inoki by DQ two weeks before this collision.
After a few weeks of such a strong push, perhaps Great Antonio did not realize it was time for him to lose face and put over the company’s ace. Once the match begins The Great Antonio no sold anything Inoki tried, at times openly laughing at the spectacle of it all. Things turned ugly when Antonio hit a few stiff sounding forearms across the back of Inoki’s neck. Inoki sprung right up and started a barrage of strikes that set up a single leg takedown. Inoki then tried to kick Antonio’s face but Barichievich attempted to get up again. Another single leg trapped Antonio long enough for Inoki to kick him in the face several times. A series of nasty stomps seemed to knock Antonio out and his manager ran in to put an end to this.
An interesting sidenote to this is that according to Butcher Vachon, The Great Antonio had come to Japan 15 years earlier to face Inoki’s mentor Rikidozan. Antonio refused to put Rikidozan over and was shot on by him as well during their very brief encounter.
Inoki would continue to put on outside the box gimmick matches for many years following this. This included working with martial artists of varying disciplines, as well as fighting on an island with no audience, bringing in legit USSR stars and hordes of other ideas to keep himself and New Japan relevant.
Inoki would end up on a years long retirement tour, finally ending with beating MMA bad ass Don Frye:
But even in retirement Inoki couldn’t stay away from the ring. He battled Renzo Gracie in an exhibition match several years later:
and that same night in one of the more surreal things you’ll see today, a gaggle of people lined up to be slapped by Inoki, a way for him to share his “fighting spirit”.
Bob Roop was a legit bad ass in the professional wrestling field. He enjoyed great success as an amateur wrestler, where he excelled at a high school, college and even Olympic level. He was also a U.S. Army paratrooper, Special Forces medic and an Army wrestling champion. By the time he entered the Olympics in 1968 he was 6’2 and a beefy 270 pounds.
Roop broke into the business in 1969 and became a regional star. He was also used by legendary Florida promoter Eddie Graham as a shooter, who would face prospects in tryout matches and stretch them to test their mettle and desire. Graham would tape these encounters as he enjoyed later reliving the moments that Roop made the would be tough guys scream in agony. The video above is a frightening example of this practice. I got goosebumps when I heard the unknown torture victim begging for mercy.
Roop went on to wrestle until 1988, when a car wreck ended his career.
Adrian Adonis gets more than he bargained for from a fan, Akira Maeda makes a few infamous appearances on the list, and Bruiser Brody doesn’t care how big your contract is – you’re in his world now…